07/21/2010 03:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Polls and the Democratic Narrative

The polling business is far more of an art than a science, is easily manipulated, and is open to as many interpretations as there are people looking at the polls. I have never known a pollster who didn't walk in the door with a set of assumptions and biases in how to interpret the data. And everyone in the business knows that the way you phrase the questions, the way you sequence the questions, the way you draw the sample of who you are asking, and a bunch of other little tricks those of us in the political biz know can dramatically impact outcomes.

The other huge factor in the polling business is who the client is, and what the purpose of the poll is. If the poll is designed for internal analysis, you get one kind of results (and generally more honest data). If the poll is designed to be released to the public to prove a point (our candidate is winning, our issue is popular, our spin is best being the usual things clients use these kinds of polls for), you want to be really careful about accepting the analysis on its face, because that is where the little (and big) things that can be done to manipulate the findings really come into play.

I say this by way of introduction to my central discussion: the internal debate within the Democratic party for what the central narrative of our party ought to be. Over the short term, that fight centers on how to save us from getting crushed in the 2010 elections, but it is of course a very long term fight that has been going on in our party since the New Deal coalition came unraveled in the late 1960s.

As I said, everyone comes to this debate with certain biases, and I will admit mine upfront. Just in case you haven't read my stuff much, I am -- by history, sentiment, ideology, and instinct -- naturally drawn to progressive populism: fighting for the "little guy", standing up to wealthy corporate interests. My political role models in history are people like FDR, Truman, and Bobby Kennedy, people who figured out how to appeal to a multi-racial coalition and the idealism of the young while still winning over working class white folks. In the modern era, my favorite political leaders are people like Paul Wellstone, Sherrod Brown, Dave Obey, Tom Perriello, and Brian Schweitzer, candidates who have won in purple or even red states/districts not by becoming more like Republicans but by raising the populist progressive flag unapologetically.

Now, having admitted my biases, I will also say that progressive populism (like every other messaging frame) has some limits as a political strategy. There are some districts it doesn't work in. There have been elections where it hasn't been as salient, or moments where where it is overwhelmed by a certain mood in the electorate or a particular candidate's magic touch (Reagan's Morning in America theme in 1984, combined with Reagan's charm and a surging economy, was a classic example, although Mondale's kind of populism wasn't exactly stirring). Certain candidates can't pull populism off credibly, and probably shouldn't try (John Kerry comes to mind).

I also firmly believe that an angry populism all by itself isn't convincing to a majority of voters, that you have to combine the justifiable anger at the abuses of corporate power with compelling positive policy ideas on how you will deliver jobs and other benefits to voters. I don't think a purely anti-business populism usually works, for example: I think candidates need to show how they support small business and manufacturers and companies that are really contributing jobs and useful products to our country and communities. Finally, I would say this: I would never recommend a purely pro-government kind of populism to candidates. Voters, for very good reasons, are deeply cynical that government is really on their side, and will really deliver for them. Progressives have to make clear that part of our mission is to clean up the corporate corruption of government, and that we understand that government in recent years (outside of old stand-bys like Social Security and Medicare and Head Start and the minimum wage) has not always done a good job in making most people's lives better. We also have to be clear that we do want to cut wasteful government spending, and that most of that wastefulness comes from corporate subsidies and sweetheart deals: contracting practices that overwhelmingly favor the contractors rather than the taxpayers, agribusiness subsidies that have no merit, sweetheart deals in health care reform that don't allow for negotiations with drug manufacturers or public sector competition with insurance companies, tax loopholes that have no rational basis for existing besides a really good lobbying operation.

On the other side of the populist argument are Democrats who argue that it is bad political strategy to be too aggressive in taking on corporate America. Since we're all admitting our biases here, I would urge the pollsters and groups who generally make this argument to admit their own: almost all of them get most of their client or contributor list from the ranks of corporate America. The leading pollster who has been making this argument for the last couple of decades is Mark Penn, who heads a firm that does far, far more work in corporate PR and lobbying than it does for candidates. The leading politicians making this argument have been the Blue Dog and New Democrat caucuses, whose members receive far more corporate money than the rest of the Democratic party. And the leading groups making these arguments are the DLC and Third Way, both of which have as a (probably the, but I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt) leading source of contributions big corporations and their executives.

The latest example is a poll recently released by Third Way. Before I get to criticizing it, let me stop for a minute and say that I thought it had some useful insights for Democrats. The idea of tying Republican policies in congress closer to Bush, for example, is certainly a solid idea (although I fear that it is harder said than done.) The idea that Democrats should speak to the future and be aspirational in their language is something that makes sense to me. I even like the fiscal discipline thing, though I would redirect it to where the real waste in the budget is (corporate sweetheart deals, see above).

Having said that, though, it was really clear that this poll's questions, and the interpretation in the memo they wrote about the poll, were designed to try and talk Democrats out of using populist rhetoric. Let me take you through a couple of examples:

In the first major section of the memo, the focus is on the importance of tying the Republicans to Bush. After a series of questions making their point on that idea, their takeaway box for section 1 is the following:

"The central argument is one of forward vs. backward. Conservative views must not be defined as "the ideology of no," "of Wall Street,", or "of special interests,", they must be defined as going back to "the ideology of Bush." Their ideas must not be "bad ideas" or "corporatist ideas,", they must be "going back to Bush economic ideas."

The odd thing about this takeaway is that they didn't ever test defining conservative views as being "of Wall Street", "of special interests", or even the awkward "corporatist ideas" phrase. When they probed on people's feelings on Wall St, like every other poll in the last two years, they discovered an intense anger, but they never even tested populist framing in their D. vs R. questions (maybe because they were afraid of how it would turn out).

The second section of the memo's entire point is to convince Democrats of how pro-business and private sector voters are. And you know what: I agree with them. Americans are very pro-business: pro-small business, pro-entrepreneur, pro-manufacturing business, pre-technology sector. But when this poll tested messages about Wall St, there was the opposite of enthusiasm. And they didn't even bother to test how people felt about big oil companies, big health insurance companies, or big pharmaceutical companies, but I know from other polls those companies are not exactly loved.

What they did do was throw up questions designed to get answers they were looking for. They asked about "cutting taxes for business" vs "making new government investments", and a lot more folks (54-32) went with the former. Here's the deal though: any of us who look at polls for a living know how a question phrased like that will turn out. If you talk about government in general, people don't trust it: as far as they can tell, a government investment might mean bailing out the banks again. But if you ask about specific things- making sure teachers don't get laid off, repairing roads and bridges, etc- people like government better.

Here's another question:

Only 37% say "large companies have too much power, hurt the middle class, and government needs to keep them in check," versus 55% who say "American companies are the backbone of the US economy and we need to help them grow, whether they are large or small." (Independents 33-57%)

Saying American companies are the backbone of the American economy and we need to help them grow sounds great even to an old lefty like me -- of course people will pick that over an ill-defined "government keeping them in check". But these are not either-or things, and there was no particular reason to make people choose between them unless the authors of the poll were trying to skew the numbers. What would have been more illuminating would have to ask the former question on its own as a simple yes or no. I'm guessing people would have liked it better then.

Look, I think every poll has some useful info, and this poll is a good reminder that in these times when most voters feel like both parties and government in general has failed them, you want to be careful about talking too fondly of the government. Americans feel good about much of American business, and Democrats should never stop emphasizing how much they want to help small business, innovative entrepreneurs, and the manufacturing sector -- because at least most of us do. But we have to combine that understanding with the knowledge that the public is sick and tired of wealthy corporate interests controlling our government, and our policies benefiting Wall St, the insurers, and Big Oil before they ever benefit the rest of us. To avoid even asking questions with the populist critique, to leave that frame out of the discussion when you are doing strategy for Democrats, is malpractice pure and simple.

I am happy to be open about my bias in this. I just wish the folks at Third Way and the other groups and candidates like them would fess up to their own pro-corporate bias.